Batman & Robin carries several unique distinctions among the Batman films. To date, it’s the only live-action film appearance of Batgirl. It’s the only Batman movie to be released within 2 years of the previous Batman movie. But most importantly, it’s often considered to be among the worst movies ever made. As someone who used to watch bad movies on a weekly basis, I wouldn’t go that far, but this movie is a complete mess that almost destroyed the superhero movie genre.
With the success of Batman Forever, Warner Bros. immediately commissioned for a sequel. They again hired Joel Schumacher to direct and Akiva Goldsam to write, and decided to fast-track the production for a June 1997 release. Chris O’Donnell also returned as Robin, however Val Kilmer decided not to return. Schumacher admitted it was difficult working with Kilmer.
“He sort of quit … and we sort of fired him.”
On top of that, Kilmer wanted to work on The Island of Dr. Monroe to work with Marlon Brando. That movie ended up suffering from major production difficulties that were even the subject of a documentary film, but that’s getting off-topic. Kilmer also wasn’t aware of the fast-track production and already committed to The Saint (1997). At first, Schumacher wanted William Baldwin cast as Batman, but George Clooney ended up taking on the role. They decided Clooney could give a lighter interpretation than Michael Keaton and Kilmer. At the time, Clooney was a major cast member in the medical drama ER, but they managed to work around his shooting schedules so there wouldn’t be any conflicts.
For Mr. Freeze, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins and Patrick Steward were all considered. After they cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, they rewrote the script to accommodate him. They wanted Mr. Freeze to be “big and strong like he was chiseled out of a glacier.” Schwarzenegger was paid $25 million for the role, and the costume he wore cost roughly $1.5 million on its own. He also wore a blue LED light in his mouth, and his prosthetic makeup and wardrobe took 6 hours to apply each day. If it weren’t for all the excessive lights, it’s actually a pretty good look for Mr. Freeze. Uma Thurman took on the role of Poison Ivey, enjoying the sound of her femme fatale characterization. Alicia Silverstone was apparently the only choice for Batgirl from the start.
To round out the cast, you’ve got Michael Gough on his fourth appearance as Alfred, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, John Glover in a minor role as an over-the-top mad scientist, Elle Macpherson in one of her few film roles as Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, and Robert Swenson as Bane. Glover is interesting in that he’s way over the top in this movie, but in the Smallville TV show, he plays a cold and calculating Lionel Luthor, and is one of the show’s best characters. Also, Swenson (a professional wrestler for 9 years) sadly died of heart failure two months after the film released, at just over 40 years of age.
Fun fact, while it’s known that rapper Coolio cameos in the movie, he apparently played the role of Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow), and he planned on reprising his role in the cancelled sequel, Batman Unchained. It seems like a pointless cameo until you learn that it was probably planned as a subtle teaser.
The filming was originally supposed to begin in August of 1996, however it was delayed for a month. Despite the month’s delay, filming concluded two weeks ahead of schedule.
Batman & Robin earned $42.8 million on its opening weekend, actually making it the third-highest opening weekend of 1997. However it declined quickly, partly because of the negative reception, and partly because of competition from Face/Off, Disney’s Hercules, and Men in Black. It ended up earning $238 million worldwide on a $160 million budget, which technically makes it a commercial failure (movies generally need to earn at least twice their budget to be financially successful).
Critically, the movie bombed, earning 12% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 3.8/10. Schumacher blamed the negative reception on Warner Bros. decision to fast track the production. “There was a lot of pressure from Warner Bros. to make Batman & Robin family friendly. We decided to do a less depressing Batman movie, and less torture and more heroic. I know I have been criticized a lot for this, but I didn’t see the harm in that approach at all.” Well, that approach clearly worked for the 60’s TV show and its accompanying movie, but that show doesn’t have the terrible writing that this movie does. But yes, it is fair to place a large part of the blame on Warner Bros.
Roger Ebert particularly criticized Mr. Freeze’s one-liner jokes in his thumbs down review. The Los Angeles Times review stated that the film “killed” the Batman film franchise. The San Francisco Chronicle’s review stated, “George Clooney is the big zero of the film.” The Time Out magazine said, “It’s hard to tell who B&R is intended for. Anyone who knows the character from the comics or the superb animated show on Fox will be alienated. And though Schumacher treats the Adam West version as gospel, that show’s campy humour is completely incompatible with these production values.” In short, the movie has so many problems that the critics couldn’t even agree on what the biggest problems were.
Clooney himself has made fun of the movie over the years. In 2005 (the year Batman Begins released), he said “I think we might have killed the franchise”, and called the movie a waste of money.
As for awards, Batman & Robin got nominated for three Saturn Awards, including Best Fantasy Film (not sure how that one came about), Best Make-Up and Best Costume, however it won none. Silverstone won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress, among 10 other Razzie nominations that the movie didn’t win. The funniest Razzie nomination is the Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property. At the now defunct Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, it won four out of five nominations, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Supporting Actress, and Worst Screenplay for a Film Grossing More Than $100M Worldwide Using Hollywood Math. It “lost” the Worst Sequel award to Speed 2: Cruise Control. I guess that makes sense, seeing how the first Speed is still seen as a good movie, while Batman Forever is a mixed bag.
Later, the Stinkers released their 100 worst films of the 20th century list, in which Batman and Robin scored 3rd place, behind Wild Wild West and Battlefield Earth. Both bad movies to be sure, but whoever compiled that list clearly hasn’t seen movies like “Geek Maggot Bingo or The Freak from Suckweasel Mountain” (Yes, that is an actual movie title), Nukie, or Red Zone Cuba. I shudder in particular when I remember Nukie.
Anyway, as much as this is a terrible movie, I don’t actually mind watching it. Despite the fact that there are elements of a failed comedy in Batman & Robin, it’s so over-the-top silly that I kind of enjoy parts of it. The opening battle with Mr. Freeze goes on way too long, and includes a weird hockey game on the frozen floor involving shiny hockey sticks, an impossibly big diamond as a puck, and the first few of many cringe-tacular ice puns from Mr. Freeze. The scene starts off in a museum of sorts, with the famous “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!” pun. Somehow, Mr. Freeze, Batman and Robin are all launched high into the atmosphere on a rocket, then they start skydiving back down to Gotham City, or in Robin’s case, surfing on a metal door. They land in the sewers, which looks more like a military facility than a sewer because of the set design. There’s so much going on in this scene that it’s hard to follow.
The set design in general is even more unrealistic than Batman Forever. This movie is just way too bright and colourful. There’s a giant telescope that Wayne Enterprises is helping build, which is kind of hanging off the side of an unrealistically large cliff. That’s not to mention that it would be silly to build such a telescope that close to a major city, with all the light pollution and all. Mr. Freeze is hiding out in some ice cream building, where it looks like whoever built the place doesn’t even know what they wanted the building to be. There are giant statues big enough to have car chases on the arms. Even from a visual standpoint, this movie is impossible to take seriously, and I’m sure that’s where a large portion of the movie’s large budget went towards.
In terms of the acting, it’s all over the place. Clooney does come across as naturally charming, but he’s not the least bit convincing as either a billionaire businessman or a vigilante. He grins way too much to work as Batman. O’Donnell still acts like a kid, despite clearly being an adult, although that’s more of a writing and direction thing than it is O’Donnell’s acting skills. Schwarzenegger isn’t even trying to take his role seriously. He’s a cartoonishly over-the-top villain, to the point where his frequent ice puns aren’t even the worst of his performance. Thurman plays off Poison Ivy’s seductive style so much that it becomes a self-parody, not to mention she doesn’t even try to be subtle while her character is pretending to be normal. MacPherson is boring as Bruce’s girlfriend, to the point where she might as well not be in the movie. Silverstone is incredibly wooden as Barbara Wilson (yeah, she’s not even related to Commissioner Gordon in this movie – she’s Alfred’s niece instead). And the less said about Bane’ offensively bad characterization, the better.
Frankly, the only good performance in the movie is Gough as Alfred. It’s especially good because in addition to being Bruce’s trusty butler, he’s also dying of a rare disease throughout the movie. This actually leads to the one sub-plot in the movie that works legitimately well. At first he’s trying to hide it, but Bruce knows his butler well enough to know that something is wrong. On top of that, Alfred is suffering from the same disease that Mr. Freeze’s wife is dying of, it’s just that he’s in an earlier stage. There are a couple of serious moments where Schwarzenegger comes across as somewhere between a cold villain and genuinely sad, showing that in a more serious movie, he could have probably been a good Mr. Freeze.
It all wraps up in the climax, where Freeze learns that Batman actually saved his wife after Poison Ivy tried to kill her. They come to an arrangement, where Freeze gives Batman the cure that works for Alfred, in exchange for Batman making sure that Freeze gets the best lab equipment available to continue working on a cure. Despite all the silliness that came before, it’s a genuinely charming moment that would be a perfect conclusion to a better movie.
Anyway, explaining everything that’s wrong with Batman & Robin would make this blog post much longer than I care to write. There are plenty of videos on YouTube tearing this movie apart in so many ways. Despite that, the cast is clearly having fun making the movie. Mr. Freeze’s subplot with his wife isn’t terrible, and it’s the main hint that there is a good movie hidden in here somewhere. If it weren’t for Warner Bros. interference and fast-tracking demands, and Schumacher was allowed to make a more serious Batman movie, Batman & Robin might have actually been good. There are hints of potential hidden in this mess. That’s more than I can say for Catwoman, which happens to be next up for this blog series.
In conclusion, Batman & Robin is a terrible movie. I wouldn’t recommend it. Every aspect of the visuals are over-the-top. The acting is all over the place, and often makes the 60’s show look subtle by comparison. The story is ridiculous and cliché. Yet despite this movie’s many, many problems, I still find it entertaining every now and then because of its over-the-top silliness. Add in a decently dramatic sub-plot, and the movie shows hints of what it could have been. It’s not completely unsalvageable. At the very least, it’s more interesting than Steel, which released a couple of months later.
Next up is Catwoman, which I am not looking forward to seeing again. Then it’s the Dark Knight trilogy, with Superman Returns between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Then I’ll conclude this series with 2019’s The Joker, which I haven’t seen yet. If I ever take a look at the DCEU, it’ll be a while from now. At this point I’m considering a catch-up month for some of my previous blog series, before doing a classic musical theme month.